Wednesday, September 5, 2018


Our old mate Ed Sorenson again provides some eyewitness insight into the way bush folk made and played their own music in the nineteenth century. In his Life in the Australian Backblocks (1911), he describes the farming custom of ‘corn-husking’, which is exactly what it sounds like, plus music and the opportunity for young couples to do some courting. At corn-husking concerts, or parties:
‘A farmer takes his family to a neighbour's tonight, and spends the evening (a farmer's evening runs to midnight) husking his corn. Next night the neighbour and his family return the visit, and on the following night, probably, some other farmer's barn is visited. This is the farmer's "at home" night, and for entertainment all the gossip of the district is ventilated, yarns are told, and songs are sung—while working; Sarah Jones's engagement with Jim Smith is announced, and all the remarkable and unremarkable incidents in the lives of the old people are aired—an interesting jumble of gold-digging, blacks, and bushrangers.’
Amongst all this gossiping, yarning and music-making:
‘The young folks enjoy these parties; the work is much more pleasant, and time doesn't drag. But the system is not followed to any great extent. There is too much talking for the average farmer (a lot of people can't work and talk, and some can't work and listen), and too much time is lost tramping to and fro, while the young people get playing and giggling. Many a courtship has started at those husking parties, and many a union could be traced back to the sly hand-clasps and squeezes when fumbling for cobs.’
As far as the courting and cuddling opportunities went, according to Sorenson, ‘a husking party offers many advantages over the bush dance.’ 

Surely, people were listening to the music, weren’t they?

Graham Seal

Saturday, August 11, 2018


Drought has always been a feature of Australian life and is a topic with an extensive folklore surrounding it. Following on from our recent look at weatherlore, Rob has put together a short but evocative YouTube clip that says it all through a little field recorded folksong, some recitation, together with a few well-chosen images and – a nursery rhyme!

Saturday, August 4, 2018


Near Young, NSW

Here’s a post from Rob about the drought devastating large parts of rural Australia, and a related project on the folklore of weather forecasting.

I live in Forbes, Central West NSW and we are really copping the drought. Over the years we have been collecting weather folklore for the NLA and I want to bring this all together and would love some help, please. Maybe we can work out a way to bring on some rain? I know that sailors reckon that whistling brings on a storm ....  everyone whistle, please. So, old sayings (Red sky at night...), songs, comparisons ('dry as a dead dingo's donger', etc), animal and bird habits, ANYTHING to do with weather. Send them to our Facebook page. We will whack them all together and put them up on our blogsite. Will also publish them locally and maybe take the farmers minds off their current circumstance.

Thanks heaps.
Rob Willis

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Life of Lola

Lola Wright 1926 - 2018

We said our goodbyes to Lola Wright at the Naranderra cemetery in June 2018. She had organised the whole event including the ‘farewell’ at the Morundah Pub after the burial. In typical fashion, two songs were chosen by Lola as a send-off: ‘I Did It My Way’ and, as they lowered her down, ‘Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye’. The farewell at Morundah was full of stories, laughter and music in memory of this amazing woman.

Russel Hannah of Wollongong first introduced us to former schoolteacher, singer, musician and activist Lola Wright and remembered her parties in the Illawarra area of NSW:

“Lola's house in Oak Flats with her partner Bill Everill was a great party place and Friday nights was 'Keg and Singing Night'. Lola had a piano and also played the accordion and in true 'infants’ mistress' style she made sure that nobody had an excuse for not singing. She had an overhead projector and would project the words of the songs onto the wall. Even those of us who couldn't hold a note were obliged to bellow out the words and there are still quite a few people around the Illawarra who know all the verses of 'Solidarity Forever' and the second verse of the 'Red Flag' because of Lola's transparencies.”
During the mid 1950’s Lola and her then husband, Jack Wright, had a visit from a couple of members of the original Bushwhacker’s Band who were performing in the Australian Musical Reedy River at the New Theatre in Newtown, Sydney. As a result of this visit the South Coast Bush Band was formed, with Lola at the helm.  
“We played anywhere for any good cause and for no cost - not even petrol. Schools, surf clubs, May days, fund raising for striking wharfies, Trades and Labour Council "do's", miners' break-up parties and such. Looking around at what happens now with Australian Folk Songs, it's something of an honour to have been in on the ground floor, even if no one knows or cares."
This band was either the second or third of this type formed in Australia. The visit also rekindled Lola’s interest in the folklore that she had experienced growing up in the bush in Queensland.
Lola Wright (nee Cowling) was born in 1926 in Childers, Qld. and travelled with her parents who were railway sleeper cutters.  Music and verse were soaked up by the young Lola and the memories of this era retained.  Lola went on to train as a teacher and stayed with this profession, attaining the role of Infants’ Mistress. During her time as a teacher Lola was a strong activist for better conditions and equal wages for women teachers.
Lola and Bill left the Illawarra in the 1980s and, after a stint running the bar on Narrandera Railway Station, settled in the tiny Riverina town of Morundah, where we visited her for the first time in November 2001. She sang us songs from her days at Armidale Teachers’ College, old parlour songs, political songs, bush songs and parodies and spoke at length about her fascinating life.  It seemed to us that this forthright and committed woman of the left had found herself in on the ground floor for most of her life - a passionate life of active involvement in industrial and political issues, of working to improve gender equality, and of promoting Australia's musical identity.
On our second visit in February 2002 Lola delved more into her childhood in Queensland and remembered dance music as well as some of the games and songs from the school yard.  These included a series of songs, ‘Maggie Maggie Magpie’, ‘Oh, Cuddly Native Bear’, ‘Merry Brown Thrush’, ‘Twenty Froggies’ and others of this kind.  

We continued to record the stories, songs and poetry of Lola Wright over the years and they are now archived in the National Library of Australia Oral History and Folklore section.  Many are available online through our catalogue, search ‘Lola Wright’.

A play, ‘Lola’s Keg Night’ written by award-winning playwright PP Cranney and producer/musical director Christina Mimmocchi, was produced in 2014 and was presented at many folk festivals and other venues. It created an awareness of Lola and other strong women of her generation.

More information on Lola at:

Rob Willis

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Pete Seeger and 'Duke' Tritton 'Shearing in a Bar'

Here's the latest on the Verandah Music Youtube channel ...

In 1963 the famous American folksinger, Pete Seeger, visited Australia. Through members of the Sydney Bush Music Club he met Harold  ‘Duke’ Tritton, bushman and outstanding performer of Australian folksong and verse. Toshi Seeger filmed an interview Pete conducted with Duke, during which he performed ‘Shearing in a Bar’. Here it is.

Further information at the Sydney Bush Music Club 

Friday, July 13, 2018

Verandah Music on Youtube

For a selection of videos and films of traditional Australian music, visit our Youtube channel. This is a colletion of rare, vintage and otherwise important field recordings and archival performances mostly unavailable elsewhere and growing all the time...

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Billy-Boiling Stakes

Our old mate Ed Sorenson again provides some eyewitness insight into the way bush folk made and played their own music in the nineteenth century. In his Life in the Australian Backblocks(1911), he describes the bush travellers’ competitive billy boiling custom. This was a serious business, it seems, and demanded knowledge of the folk science of boiling water in a billy, a standard necessity of bush life:

‘Among some travellers billy-boiling takes the form of a competition. The man of experience, looking over an array of well-used billies, says: "I'll back my billy to boil first." Interest being thus awakened, the others then put fiery spurs to their own utensils, each waiting, with tea-bag in hand, for the first ripple. Of course, some are specially adapted for quick boiling, whilst others are "naturally slow." A man with a quick boiler is always ready to back it against any other. He understands it, and can judge its boiling-time to within a few seconds. An old billy will boil quicker than a new one. The water is also worth considering. River-water will boil quicker than rain-water, stagnant water quicker than running water, whilst water that has once been boiled and cooled will boil again quicker than any other.’

The iconic billy is a standard feature of bush lore and songs like ‘My Old Black Billy’ and, after a little doctoring by the advertising industry, in the best-known version of ‘Waltzing Matilda.’ These competitions also provided another opportunity for making music, as Sorenson goes on to describe:
‘Yet, there is many a tedious wait for the billy to boil, and rejoicing of hungry ones when it begins to bubble. The old diggers on Ballarat and Bendigo used to sing, "Oh, what would you do if the billy boiled over?" when it was time to make the tea. And what legends are wrapped around the billy! Yarns are always being told, and bush songs are always being sung around a million camp fires while the billy boils.’

So, as the song goes:

You can sing of your whisky and sing of your beer
There’s something much nicer awaiting me here
It sits on the fire beneath the gum tree
There’s nothing much nicer than a billy of tea!

Sunday, June 24, 2018


From Stan Hugill's Shanties from the Seven Seas

In the days of sail, when sailors signed on to a voyage they were paid a month’s wages in advance. This was spent on clothing and equipment needed for the trip, as well as grog, women and the other necessities of a matelot’s life. Because they had to work this payment off before they were paid again, the first month of the voyage was known as ‘working off the dead horse.’ When the month was over and they began receiving their pay, they might perform a folk play known as ‘Burying the Dead Horse’

… The crew dress up a figure to represent a horse; its body is made out of a barrel, its extremities of hay or straw covered with canvas, the mane and tail of hemp, the eyes of two ginger beer bottles, sometimes filled with phosphorus.  When complete the noble steed is put on a box, covered with a rug, and on the evening of the last day of the month a man gets on to his back, and is drawn all round the ship by his shipmates, to the chanting of the following doggerel:—


You have come a long long way,
   And we say so, for we know so.
For to be sold upon this day,
   Poor old man.

You are goin’ now to say good-bye,
   And we say so, for we know so.
Poor old horse you’re a goin’ to die,
   Poor Old Man.

Having paraded the decks in order to get an audience, the sale of the horse by auction is announced, and a glib-mouthed man mounts the rostrum and begins to praise the noble animal, giving his pedigree, etc., saying it was a good one to go, for it had gone 6,000 miles in the past month!  The bidding then commences, each bidder being responsible only for the amount of his advance on the last bid.  After the sale the horse and its rider are run up to the yard-arm amidst loud cheers.  Fireworks are let off, the man gets off the horse’s back, and, cutting the rope, lets it fall into the water.  The Requiem is then sung to the same melody.

Now he is dead and will die no more,
   And we say so, for we know so.
Now he is gone and will go no more;
   Poor Old Man.

After this the auctioneer and his clerk proceed to collect the “bids,” and if in your ignorance of auction etiquette you should offer your’s [sic]to the auctioneer, he politely declines it, and refers you to his clerk!

This was how Richard (later Sir) Tangye, bound for Melbourne aboard the Parramattain 1879 recalled the ceremony aboard that ship. (Richard Tangye, Reminiscences of travel in Australia, America, and Egypt, London, 1884).
Amazingly, on the same ship and the same voyage a young man named George Haswell took the trouble to document the sailors’ work shanties. He was a skilled musician and transcribed the words and music of their songs, including the ‘Dead Horse’ ceremony described by Tangye (bottom of first page and top of second page, below, for melody).

(SLNSW)NB: Very early use of ‘folksong’ here, especially in its combined form – yes, you really wanted to know that!)

There are many other accounts of this maritime ceremony, which was extant before 1845. It must have been eerie in a probably empty sea at dusk, as well as enjoyable for crew and passengers. Certainly, all accounts involve alcohol. 

But what did it sound and look like as the crew advanced across the deck chanting and pushing or pulling a horse-shaped structure, sometimes with glowing and occasionally, if the captain allowed, with fireworks? We’ll never know. But we can hear the song in a very nice modern rendition by the Ian Campbell Folk Group.

The Dead Horse ceremony usually took place in one of the ocean regions known as ‘the horse latitudes’. Respectively, 30-35 degrees north of the equator and 30-35 degrees south of the equator, these were areas where the winds often died away, becalming sailing ships. As the legend goes, if a ship was becalmed long enough in one of these regions for the drinking water to run out, any horses (and presumably other livestock) might be thrown overboard to preserve water for the crew. A bit more folklore – might even be true!

Graham Seal
PS: A longer version of this post, with sources, is at Ghost Music , on this blog.

Friday, June 8, 2018


Here’s another item on bush music. The blokes in this drawing were celebrating New Year’s Eve, sometime around the 1890s. The picture and accompanying description comes from Edward Sorenson’s classic book, Life in the Australian Backblocks(1911).

Barely-known today, Edward Sorenson was a successful writer and journalist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born in Queensland and spending most of his life in the bush, he knew what he was talking about and his writings provide sharp observations of bush life and customs, including music. Here he is on a night at a bullock camp:

‘Bullock camps were once plentiful along the main roads. Not infrequently there would be fifty or sixty men in camp, and, gathered round the blazing log fires, they would mix the yarns of the roads with songs and music. Two out of every three teams carried a concertina or a violin. Travellers joined them, and many a time bushrangers have shared their fires; more than once the lawless bands have helped themselves to the cargo. This, of course, was in the long ago, when bullock-driving had its thrills and possessed something of the picturesque features of the southern overlanders.’

And again, this time on travelling ‘cattle-men, scalpers, brumby-hunters, buffalo- shooters, or prosperous diggers.’ When camped together for the night their ‘packs will produce two or three different musical instruments, and music, songs, recitations, and yarning alternate till late at night, while a dozen horse-bells are jingling in the bush around them.’

Sorenson mentions the central role of music in bush entertainment a few times in his book but also points out that it was rare, in his experience, at least, to find anyone who could sing a complete song. If this is accurate, and it probably is, it could explain why collectors often collect what have been called ‘fragments’ of traditional song. The Sally Sloane’s and Simon McDonald’s were probably as scarce as hen’s teeth.

The impromptu New Year’s Eve band in the picture has a couple of whistles, a concertina and a kerosene drum. The musicians are wearing bell-bottom trousers, popular with larrikins at the period. One of the whistlers is wearing a bowyang tied beneath his knee, an indication that he is a working man.

Along with our other posts on this topic, this helps us a picture of traditional bush music in its social contexts at a period when it was a major form of everyday, DIY entertainment and socialising.

Monday, May 28, 2018


Here’s another in our Verandah Music  posts on home-made music. The family band described in this article from 1943 is similar to one we featured a few years ago under the title 'The Music of Strange Bands'.


A SOUTH COAST (NSW) family has a strange collection of home-made musical instruments. There are several whistles made from bush timber; a violin made from a cigar-box, bits of bush timber and kangaroo sinews; some unnamed instruments made from bullocks' horns; an instrument which they call a bottlephone because it consists of beer bottles mounted on a frame and struck with a little mallet to produce the music; a drum made from two goat skins; and a banjo made from a sheep-skin and wallaby tail sinews. Several of the girls learnt to play tunes on gumleaves and one of the boys can play tunes on a set of old bullock bells which he has altered and timed. Altogether quite a novel jazz band.

"Wongarbon." Sydney.(Smith’s Weekly, 3 July 1943, p. 8).

Wondering what a bottlephone is? 

‘a "bottle-phone," Is, as Its name Indicates, made from bottles, which are made
to supply the various notes of the musical scale. You will find It easy to build, and
It will give you and your friends lots of entertainment.’

You can make and play your own!

‘… You will need 22 bottles of varying size to get a range of notes from B flat, below middle C to G, above high C, with the intervening half tones. Each bottle is suspended on a string, and the pitch is checked with a piano, adding water as necessary to obtain the right pitch….’

Go to follow the illustrated instructions for making and playing a bottlephone (1940). Easier than Ikea!

The bottlephone seems to have been around for a while. Rob found mention of one in a concert at Kadina in 1900 and even advertisements from the early 1890s.